Michael Marano, 129 TESS
It’s early November and we’re playing Face Off, a game that by now my students can run on their own, but with only 4 months left in my service I fight to be the host, not ready to stop being their teacher. Dtang is standing in front of the class, perpendicular to her peers, holding her laminated vocabulary card so taut I imagine it splitting down the middle like a grilled cheese sandwich. She glances at the picture of the spider then to me, her facial expression an assault with its blankness. The absence of her normal animation lets me know she thinks I’ve given the Purple Team an advantage with a word taught by Spider-Man long before this lesson. I smile. Nothing. I divert my gaze. Nine feet away, with his back to hers, Bpam wiggles his eyebrows in a premature victory dance, drops of sweat dripping onto his nose from the hair plastered to his forehead by the afternoon heat with each bounce. He tilts the card he’s holding with the picture of a caterpillar in the direction of his friend Mick as they both start to giggle. Not since we studied “refrigerator” has a word been so loathed by a group of nine-year-olds.
The score is 12-12 and the audience of younger students with book bags lining the back of the room acts as a warning that at any minute the bell could ring. “1,2,3, go!” They both spin around shouting the word the other is holding at the same time and the whole classroom, including both teams, erupts with cheers. My experience as a volleyball line judge signals that I’ve missed something important as 60 eyes turn in the direction of Teacher who was always more entertained by the crowd than the game. Before I have time to think, Sun stands up and spells “D-T-A-N-G” becoming more vehement with each letter she is screaming at the Purple Team in such a bewildering display of team spirit that I’m apt to give her a point out of fear. Mick jumps up waving his arms, locking eyes with Sun as a softness replaces the anger furrowing her brow, and they start chanting in unison, “one more time, one more time!” Soon the whole room has joined in, ignoring the bell, and watching with excitement as Bpam and Dtang stand back to back looking to me for approval. As I glance outside to see if students have started lining up at the flag yet, my phone buzzes and I receive the message I’ve been waiting for. The anxiety that has been resting in my gut transforms into happiness on its journey through my body, settling in the crow’s feet around my eyes. It returns just as fast when it sees the impatience on my student’s faces. “Ok, ok, one more time!”
Later that night, I find myself staring at a chubby finger covering the gap between Apple’s two front teeth warning me against making any noise that could give away our hiding spot. The house settles into stillness and after a few seconds of skepticism the rest of the family stops what they’re doing to soak in the silence, storing this sliver of peace to survive until bedtime. A plastic Army hat digs into my skull and the 80 ounces of water I drank that day flow from my body down the riverbed of my spine. We’re hiding inside a large play area made of PVC piping underneath a foam mat covered with pictures of farm animals and bite marks that match the indentations on my own slobbery wrist, an act of betrayal by the soldier sitting across from me. Name complains that we hide in the same place every night but Apple’s eyes act as a window into our true location, an ever-changing universe tucked away deep in the imagination of a 2.5-year-old that we could never comprehend. He reaches out and grips my hand, reassuring me that although this world is all his own, I’m there with him, an honor that makes the need for a second bucket shower that night feel like a luxury.
Baby Lego’s cry from the bedroom breaks the silence seconds before Name rips the mat off of our heads and pretends to shoot us with a Nerf gun that hasn’t seen a dart since I last had a boyfriend. I die for the 18th time that night, lying on the ground when a tyrannosaurus rex thrown by my own comrade bounces off of Name’s gun and cuts the bridge of my nose, a red badge of honor that is there more often than not. Apple says, “uh oh” and grabs a Hulk mask from the deflated swimming pool that houses his toys and smashes it into my face, his frenzy using it as a weapon instead of the shield he intended. A surge of sweat breaks the dam of my waistline and my knees remind me that I’m 31 not 10, signaling that playtime is over for this kid. Name sees me wobbling to stand up, looking on in horror at the reality of being left alone to play with Apple, and screams with enough desperation to break my heart, “one more time, one more time!” For the 15th time I sit back down and say, “one more time,” feeling extra grateful for my family in Thailand tonight and just as nervous for the phone call I’m about to make to my mom in America.
The next afternoon, I’m standing at the market, swatting flies with a plastic bag fastened to the end of a long twig by rubber bands, trying to gain the confidence to tell my host mother the news, knowing she has to be the first to hear but that once it’s said there’s no turning back. A pickup truck filled with 15 people in its bed stutters to a stop and the sugarcane farmers who have moved in for the season head straight to the pork table, the tires breathing a sigh of relief as each jumps out. My host mother, in a hurry, asks me to hand her a baggie of blood given away for free to be used in a soup that translates to “waterfall,” knowing that I hate dipping my hands into the murky, red waters of the bucket they bob in, and I pretend not to understand. She starts laughing and tells everyone I’m afraid, something a teacher at school who doesn’t go to the market or even live in our village will ask me about tomorrow. It’s my first time interacting with them, only feeling their presence as I bike to school now able to see the mountains in the distance, a byproduct of their harvesting, so I reach inside to try to impress them. It begins to snow black ash from the sky, matching the hands of the farmers who have spent the day cutting the burnt sugarcane plants, and I take it as a sign that I am never to put my hand in the blood bucket again, an omen I intend to honor. My host mother demands another baggie, “ok, one more time.”
I start thinking about how often I say that phrase, at least 15 times before it really is one more time, the result of always wanting to have a little bit more fun, and enough times that my students and Name started saying it on their own, learned by repetition. As the farmers make their way to the vegetable baskets, I notice Dtang with a fresh, black smudge rubbed into the dimple of her smile heading toward our table. I ask her review questions in English as the market goes silent, listening in awe as the little girl they’ve watched grow up answers each one with confidence. She asks if anyone else from the third grade has been to the market yet today, high fiving me when I tell her only Sun, giving them a two-point advantage in class tomorrow straight off their overtime victory. As she skips away, reaffirming in four minutes that I’m ready to commit, I prepare to tell my host mother the big news that I’ve been sitting on since yesterday. To give me time to take on new projects and expand the ones I’ve already implemented, I am extending my service from 27 to 40 months, my plan approved the day before by both Peace Corps and my mom. My decision was easy, like “one more time” for my students staying an extra year was cemented in my brain with the repetitiveness of the moments I had found sprinkled throughout the past uneventful day. The words leave my mouth in a rush of English and Thai causing my host mother to drop her knives and start dancing, showing me that she understands, and soon the whole market is celebrating. With a smile, I say to myself, “one more time.”
Read Michael’s other articles Falling in Love in the Peace Corps, A Big Gay Peace Corps Spiritual Journey, River Rise, See You Again on the Next Time, Not Taking It On, Love, The Mystery of the Tooth in the Sock, and An Island Curse.